Radio in Crisis

Posted: January 31, 2012 in Uncategorized
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The advent of radio little over 100 years ago has revolutionised the way in which we communicate. Radio technology is responsible for enabling television transmission, satcoms, mobile telephony and WIFI technology all of which are dependent on the transmission of radio frequency at the core of their atchitecture. Radio has a worldwide omnipresence – it can be accessed by virtually everyone, bar perhaps internally displaced persons (IDP), and is hugely affordable, requiring a one off purchase (or other means of acquisition) of a receiver – when compared to the internet, which is costly & unaffordable for many, unreliable & inefficient in places without sufficient infrastructure, and closely guarded & largely censored throughout a substantial portion of the world, radio is still by far the most relevant communication tool. But radio as we think of it, in it’s am/fm/shortwave analog forms, has very much become the Granddaddy of technology, and is rapidly being replaced by it’s satellite and internet offspring in this new era of digital technology. Whilst traditional analog radio grows old and is challenged by its younger counterparts I want to examine radio in its many guises and look at the important place analog radio still has in crisis communication:

The prevalence of radio makes it a vital tool for crisis early warning, sounding the alarm for the most vulnerable and remote. The major fallback to radio early warning is that should a disaster come in the night, most people do not have their radios on ready to receive their warning. Efforts are being made to devise a radio which has a built in crisis alarm system, which could alert people even when their receivers were switched off, but it would take many years for the system to filter through the market to where everyone in high risk zones owned one of these special radios (Wattegama, 2007). Radio is being used as a preparative tool not only for early warning scenarios, but in mitigation techniques too. Radio programmes worldwide have been offering people effective advice on how to prepare for the onset of catastrophe. Community and commercial radio is being used to inform people before the event of natural disasters such as typhoons, tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunamis.  And in the aftermath of disaster it is often the most essential tool for communcating.

After the Haiti earthquake of 2010 a system was set up, which I discussed in my previous article on mapping, enabling people affected by the earthquake in Haiti to text their emergency messages from their mobile phones to a free text number 4636, the messages were retrieved by the Standby Task Force (SBTF), a team of volunteers, mainly based out of Stanford University & Tufts University at that time, who worked with members of the Haitian diaspora to translate the messages into English. They were then mapped by the SBTF onto the Haiti Crisis Map, hosted on the Ushahidi Platform and the information was fed back to the UN OCHA team where they were able to respond to many desperate otherwise omitted pleas for help. One of the ways that this project was made so successful was through the use of local radio to advertise the project to the thousands of people suffering in Port-au-Prince and beyond.

In any crisis scenario communicating becomes all the more necessary but is almost always more difficult than it would normally be. In situations of natural disaster many of the major communication paths are out of action because of damage to infrastructure including power lines, antennas and telecommunication masts & towers and because of service overload with too many trying to access/offer information simultaneously (Townsend & Moss, 2005). In the aftermath of disaster two-way amateur radio or ‘ham’ radio has been essential for communication between emergency responders. Ham radio uses high frequency short-wave signals and is reliable and affordable way to communicate. In man-made disaster and conflict too communication lines can be seriously disrupted as we have seen in Libya when Gaddafi shut down the internet, and disrupted mobile phone services. Ham radio was listed as one of the most viable means of communicating through the shut-down. Ham radio requires very little infrastructure and is often deployed by the community, who are the natural first responders in disaster (Townsend & Moss, 2005). An inspiring example of high frequency (HF) radio in action in the thick of conflict is in Central Africa where HF radio is being used to track the movements of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Invisible children’s LRA crisis tracker uses early warning radio networks to warn remote communities about the movements and potential threat of the LRA. And one of the greatest benefits of short-wave radio is that it can be difficult to censor and/or intercept.

Interception is a technique used for intelligence gathering it works through either decrypting the signals or through traffic analysis, where one can view the movements of the signals from their originator to their receptor. Whilst it is a technique deployed by authoritarian regimes it has also been used by dissidents to track the movements and actions of oppressing military regimes and monitor paramilitary activity. Spread spectrum radio can be deployed for safeguarding against interception. Spread spectrum techniques are “used for a variety of reasons, including the establishment of secure communications, increasing resistance to natural interference, noise and jamming, to prevent detection, and to limit power flux density” (Spread Spectrum, Wikipedia, 2012).

Jamming is a way of censoring radio transmission used by many despotic and totalitarian regimes, including the Gaddafi regime, to interfere with unwanted radio signals by creating interference on the signal. During the cold war Russia was responsible for attempting censorship of western shortwave stations reaching the eastern bloc, innovative homemade devices for bypassing these restrictions were invented such as ‘directional loop antennas‘ and because “radio propagation on shortwave can be difficult to predict reliably listeners sometimes found that there were days/times when the jamming was particularly ineffective because radio fading (due to atmospheric conditions) was affecting the jamming signals but favouring the broadcasts. On other days of course the reverse was the case.” (Radio Jamming, Wikipedia, 2012).

However there is also the inadvertent censorship of vital radio services that provide objective news coverage where it is otherwise unavailable: Ironically, in the same month as Libyans took arms against the captors of their communication freedoms the National Union of Journalist made an inquiry submission to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee against the BBC proposed cuts to some of their world service programming. The BBC World Service has broadcasts in 72 languages throughout its history (27, as of March 2011) and reached over 188 million people – “1 in every 25 adults worldwide” (Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry into BBC World Service cuts, February 2011). The financial decision made by the BBC to cut some of their major service worldwide was a blow to not only those in the service who’s job’s were at stake, but also to the communities who felt they had benefitted from the impartial reporting of the BBC. In an interview with the Guardian a member of the Caribbean World Service office, one of services being cut, said:

“I think many people take it for granted, and because there is widespread democracy in Britain I don’t think a lot of people understand how significant a role the World Service plays in other parts of the world where, to a large extent people, usually depend on the World Service because the local media is very biased or very government controlled and people are not getting a balanced diet when it comes to news and analysis”. (Guardian, 26 January 2011)

The role of the BBC World Service in peace building scenarios has helped to rewrite the narratives of war, to promote community, unity and democracy in post conflict environments such as in Nepal where “a number of prominent civil society leaders have submitted a petition to the British Prime Minister David Cameron urging the UK government to stop the planned shutdown of the short wave transmissions of the BBC Nepali Service. The petitioners have regretted the decision by the BBC World Service to shut down its short wave transmissions in Nepali from March 27 saying that the service had been making tremendous contribution to promote a culture of democracy, tolerance and dialogue on issues of national importance particularly among the poorest and scattered sections of Nepali society who have little access to information. The petition states that since short wave receivers can be battery operated, BBC Nepali Service has been available in places without electricity or during power cuts. ‘ If the short wave transmission is shut down, millions of Nepali listeners, mostly in remote, mountainous areas of Nepal, will be cut off from their essential source of dependable news, and the UK will irreversibly damage its most successful (brand) presence in Nepal.” (, 2011 via Sadly, even with all the international pressure, the cuts went ahead and by the end of May 2011 seven short-wave language broadcasting services were lost (BBC World Service, Wikipedia, 2012).

The cost of losing objective radio reporting can weigh heavy when radio is controlled by a dominating majority or faction and is used to propagate hate speech and unilateral political messages. Perhaps the most noted instance of hate radio was its role in the Rwanda genocide, when Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) national and state owned radio station, participated over an extended period of time in broadcasting vengeful and bigoted messages about the Tutsi minority in Rwanda and ultimately calling on the Hutu to destroy Tutsi– because of the popularity of the station amongst the Hutu majority it was seen as catalyst for the attacks and atrocities against Tutsi which lead to the genocide of 1/5 of their population.

Satellite radio works by receiving digital signals broadcast by satellite, it works “anywhere there is a line of sight between the antenna and the satellite” (Wattegama, 2007). The advantage to satellite radio is that the range is much greater in geographical width than land radio signals, it works in remote locations that might otherwise be unable to reach land radio coverage and it does not require fixed land infrastructure to function, such as masts and receivers and is less susceptible to interception and jamming (Wattegama, 2007). Satcoms work using the same technology and are now the preferred method of communication amongst NGOs working in large scale crises. Organisations like Telecoms Sans Frontieres and Humaninet specialise in just this, providing satcoms, in particular inmarsat bgan, to NGOs working in remote areas, or areas with telecommunication infrastructural damage or where communication is otherwise prohibited. On the Libya/Tunisia border telecoms sans frontieres worked to reconnect 30,500 displaced families escaping the conflict in Libya with relatives and connections in 115 different countries using WIFI enabled satcoms.

Digital radio is rapidly replacing analogue communication in the west a trend that is likely to spread throughout the world but whilst digital radio definitely has its place, and it definitely is a significant place, in crisis response the move away from analogue modulation in crisis response is hottly debated.  One of the major problems that I can see with digital communication in crisis was highlighted by Daryl Jones in his blog where he states:

Digital modulation precludes the ability of the human brain to decipher speech that has been corrupted by noise and interference. Audio recovery is impossible when the signal-to-noise ratio of a digitally modulated signal falls below a certain threshold. With analog modulation, the human ear and brain can “decode” speech that is buried beneath noise levels that digital circuits and algorithms cannot contend with. While analog and digital transmissions are both subject to dead spots and interference, digital modulation reduces human communication by eliminating the “gray area” afforded by analog equipment. Digital equipment (P25 IMBE) usually will not recover any audio in cases where an analog signal will be quite understandable, especially in cases where significant multipath interference is present…a firefighter using a digital portable radio while standing next to a fire engine that is pumping water will probably not be understandable over the radio because the codec cannot isolate the voice from the pump noise. Another example is a police officer who is trying to announce his or her location during a pursuit. The officer’s digitized voice may be unintelligible because of the siren. A canine officer with a dog that is barking loudly may not be heard because of the competing noise from the dog. In all of these examples, it is likely that analog modulation would provide reliable communication (Daryl Jones Blog, Oct 28th, 2007)

Some other new and upcoming radio technologies for crisis worth mentioning include Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) which is being used not only post crisis to help monitor and track goods moving to and through crisis affected areas, but it has been suggest that they also be used in crisis early warning systems as person identification tags containing vital family information as in the SEACOOP E-disaster Use Case. I also found a study recently looking at ‘Enabling Pervasive Mobile Applications with the FM Radio Broadcast Data (RBD) System‘; RBDs provide “a low data rate digital broadcast channel alongside each FM channel” (A. Rahmati et al, 2010) which displays programme information on a radio reciever. The study examines the potential for RBDs to provide information beyond the simple delivery of current programme information and this would perhaps have a relevance in crisis early warning systems and for the provision of post-crisis support.

Radio, therefore, in its many forms is an essential tool for communication in crisis and analog still stands firmly in place as a contender.

For additional reading:

ICT for Disaster Management, C. Wattegama, 2007.

The use of community radio in managing natural disaster in Indonesia, M. A. Birowo, 2010.

Telecommunications Infrastructure in Disaster: Preparing Cities for Crisis Communications, Townsend & Moss, 2005.

Enabling Pervasive Mobile Applications with the FM Radio Broadcast Data (RBD) System’, A. Rahmati et al, 2010.

Projects involving radio in crisis:

USAID – conflict management through community radio

ISIS International – Engendered disaster management through community radio

Invisible Children’s – LRA crisis tracker


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